What does Windrush 75 mean for the NHS?
One of the best things about my role is speaking to staff. Since becoming Interim Chair, I’ve tried to meet as many staff as possible. Not only is it a critical part of the role, but it’s also one of the parts of the job I enjoy most. And so, while talking to a member of staff from Birmingham and Solihull ICS, they took the opportunity to ask me ‘‘What does Windrush mean for the NHS?’.
It’s a valid question and a thought provoking one. Today, on the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush ship arriving in the UK, there’s value in remembering the role of the Windrush generation in the establishment of the NHS and considering what we can usefully learn from Windrush in how we plan and provide health and care today.
As I reflect on the legacy of the Windrush Generation, I need to look at my own family history as a starting point. My parents, who are both alive – my mum 89, my dad now approaching his 92nd birthday – came to Britain in the late 1950s. They raised my four sisters and me in the Wolverhampton area in the West Midlands.
My parents are part of a Windrush Generation that made significant contributions to post-war Britain: from development of the social housing movement, the NHS, transport, engineering, education, sports, arts, music, and public life. Yet, sadly, the majority never achieved their true personal aspirations in either career, professional development or entrepreneurship.
While Windrush 75 is about celebration, it is also about recognition of the survival, the tenacity and the vibrant energy that the Windrush Generation brought with them. We need to recognise the contribution of this generation and the sacrifices they made, starting new lives and raising families in the face of overt and covert racism, with children walking past signs saying ‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’ on their way to school. The Windrush Generation endured the worst of racism and anti-blackness. It wasn’t just the ‘colour bar’ ‘that they endured but the ongoing issues of the impact of empire and colonisation. And we need to recognise, too, that racism and injustice can still be experienced today.
I’ve recently worked with respected thinktank British Future and the Windrush 75 Network on research into why the Windrush matters today. Through this work, and my own research, we have heard dozens of stories of staff travelling from the Caribbean to the UK and joining the NHS as nurses, midwives, administrators, doctors and more. And through this work, we have found that there is a strong desire to ensure that the lessons of Windrush are not lost.
But how does any of this matter to the NHS today? It’s clear to me that we cannot tackle health inequalities without keeping race on the agenda and collectively addressing systemic racism. We must work together as a system to make good the commitment that we, and partners across the city, have made to make Birmingham ‘The first anti-racist city in the UK’.
The NHS is a major employer and trusted and cherished brand – we have power and influence and should use it to make a positive impact. We have made ourselves accountable with 17 pledges made at the BRIG Race Summit. These pledges range from immediate actions we can take, to long-term strategies to fundamentally shift how we do things. Pledges include being transparent about how we operate to being more collaborative in how we design and deliver services and community interventions.
We have adopted the Race Equality Code to help improve race equality and tackle discrimination within the workplace, in addition to the recommendations from the Birmingham and Lewisham African and Caribbean Health Inequalities Review, working with system and community partners to improve ethnic inequalities specific to the African and Caribbean community.
The NHS has not been immune from the structural racism in wider society – inequalities in access, experience and outcomes have long been known about and quietly tolerated. Black, Asian and minority ethnic NHS staff have long endured higher prevalence of bullying and harassment cases, higher prevalence of disciplinaries, lower pay and lack of promotion opportunities. Through the development of our system wide Inclusion & Belonging Strategy, we have a chance to make a big difference for staff in our system. We must not let that chance pass us by.
So why does the 75th anniversary of Windrush matter to the NHS today? It matters because I believe we can only tackle today’s challenges by understanding our history. It matters because we can only address health inequalities by understanding and targeting the structural issues and the wider determinants of health causing them. And it matters because we know that we can, and must, do better for staff in our system which will contribute to better outcomes for our staff, the local community and generations to come.